PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – An international human rights group charged Thursday that a massive land redistribution program spearheaded by Cambodia's strongman prime minister is unfair, open to corruption and politically motivated.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report that the program, which began a year ago, was designed to be closely identified with Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of national elections next month, with extensive coverage in state media but no oversight.
The report urged Cambodia's aid donors — who provide a major portion of the country's national budget — "to insist that the program be reformed into a professional and apolitical process, or canceled."
Tith Sothea, a government spokesman, described the report as "baseless" and "garbage," and accused Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams of "never speaking positively about Cambodia." He said Cambodians are benefiting from being given titles to their land because it prevents it from being stolen.
Virtually all records of land ownership were destroyed during the late 1970s rule of the Khmer Rouge, who sought to abolish private property. Their widespread relocation of the population furthered complicated land rights questions.
The report noted that Hun Sen recently announced the land titling program would be suspended until after the July 28 elections, which are certain to be won in a landslide by his Cambodian People's Party. The ruling party is campaigning aggressively, and last week used a legal maneuver to expel opposition members from parliament.
"It is good news that the land titling campaign has been suspended until after the elections, but this demonstrates just how political the effort has been from the outset," Adams said.
The report cited Hun Sen as saying the titling program would provide ownership documents to 478,928 families covering 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) of land.
"While some have benefited from the campaign, in other cases the scheme has amounted to a land grab by powerful interests with no legal protections or recourse for those who lose out in the process. The campaign is being conducted in a secretive and bullying manner in which independent organizations are prevented from monitoring what is happening and local residents are threatened if they complain," Adams said in the report.
Adams, an American lawyer, worked for five years in Cambodia in the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and as legal adviser to the Cambodian parliament's human rights committee.
Land grabbing has become a volatile social problem nationwide, with backroom deals and deadly force sometimes employed against those living on properties. Activists link the deals to corruption and cronyism.
The issue could give the opposition an opportunity to pick up some parliamentary seats in the elections. The report says an estimated 700,000 Cambodians have been evicted from land the government has sold or given away as economic concessions for commercial development.